Lessons from the Orion-MJC debacle

I’m sure most South African Muslims are aware of the Orion-MJC saga that started late last year, and has resurfaced this week with a documentary airing on e-tv. I didn’t see the program, so I’m not in a position to comment on it, but from what I have observed, many people are very emotional over it – and rightly so.

The sad thing, though, is when people start using inappropriate and derogatory language to insult the ulama of our country. Yes, we have the right to be angry with this situation and the way it was handled (both the actual ‘crime’ and the public relations disaster that followed) – but that doesn’t give us the right to overstep the Islamic limits of speech.

I’m not saying that we can’t publically criticize them – that we should just sweep this under the rug because we must protect our ulama. This is a public issue, and one that can be discussed publically – whether on Facebook, forums, or other platforms.

But what is wrong is when ulama are insulted with language that is not befitting of any Muslim. There’s a way to criticize without getting nasty, and unfortunately, some have fallen into the trap – the trap that shaytaan has laid out for us in this incident.

There’s debate about whether critiscising the alims is ‘backbiting’ – and on that point, I refer you back to an old post that covered backbiting.

I won’t accuse anyone of backbiting in this case, because I don’t want to argue with individuals, and I’m in no position to judge anyone. But what I will say is that the proper Islamic etiquette is required if you’re going to criticize anyone in public – whether an alim, organization, politician, celebrity, or ordinary person. In fact, this applies in private too.

This whole thing really is a test for our community: in the actual halaal industry (which has long been criticized and in need of reforms, according to many), but also in the way we respond or react to it.

Let’s remember that every word we say or write is something that goes on our record – which we will be held accountable for. We should seek the truth and speak from a position of solid knowledge – and not jump to conclusions and say things based on rumours and unproven suspicions (because, as verse 12 in Surah Hujurat says, “…. Avoid much suspicion; indeed, some suspicions are sins…”)

Let’s take some lessons from this incident, and make it a means of improving our own understanding of how to conduct ourselves correctly (in addition to the community-level issues that need to be addressed with the MJC and halaal certification industry).

This story, from Voice of the Cape (the leading Muslim radio station in Cape Town), sums up a lot of what I think:

We must do better: Mufti

There were several lessons to learn out of the Orion halal saga, in particular as it played itself out this week after the screening of the etv expose on 3rd Degree. This was the view of Mufti Abdul Kader Hoosain, speaking on VOC’s Q&A on Thursday. The alim said what was seen on the documentary was “a real disgrace” since it showed Muslims “being caught with their pants down”.

The first lesson, mufti said, was for organisations like the halal certifying bodies to realise that they needed skilled public relations officers to deal with the media.  “This is not something that anyone can do. Muslims cannot be caught offside like this again. It is not only bad for Muslims, but also for Islam since there are so many non-Muslims watching us. So it is imperative that we have professional people in this regard,” the alim said.

A second lesson related to the issue of giving halal certification to non-Muslim businesses, especially where it was not under Muslim management. “This is something I have personally always been opposed to. I could not agree with the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) when they first certified McDonalds and I still cannot agree with this practise, because once we give halal certication to a non Muslim owned business that is not under Muslim management, how can we trust it? So my humble appeal is for the ulema to review this policy.”


Thirdly, on the matter of halal inspections, he said much tighter controls were needed. “When meat comes from abroad, it is recertified upon its arrival here. However, once it leaves the port and goes to importers like Orion Cold Storage, who is responsible for checking it? We now saw how these products were deliberately relabelled and someone must be held accountable. These people have committed a criminal offence by relabelling these products fraudulently, but we also carry blame because we left the door open for them to exploit.”

He said it was critical for halal certifiers to ensure that there were no loopholes in the halal certification process so that the purity of the halal chain from the point of origin to the Muslim table can be ensured. “Having said that, I don’t think it is a good thing to bring in ‘halal’ imports in the first place, because sometimes they have lower halal standards in that country than in South Africa,” he added.

According to Mufti, the public was justified in feeling that the halal certification business was only about money. “No wonder people speak about ‘scholars for dollars’. We cannot be upset about these perceptions, because where there is smoke, there is fire. It is a tragedy that, as Muslims, we may have unwittingly found ourselves holding pork in our hands, cooking and eating it. Someone must be honest and take responsibility for that. We must apologise to the public and admit that it was an oversight,” he advised.


Asked about the public anger, especially towards the Muslim Judicial Council Halal Trust (MJCHT), the alim said a bit more perspective was needed. “The MJC is an organisation that is older than me and it has done great work since 1945 which we cannot wipe away. If one has an axe to grind with them, then it is your personal issue. You cannot now blame the entire MJC for it. That is totally wrong. The Quran urges us not to let our hatred of a people make us forget to be just. This also applies to people with whom we disagree. That is Islam.”

The alim pointed out that while the MJC had done sterling work since its inception, in this instance, they handled things incorrectly and not only needed to rectify it, but also take steps to ensure that the same mistake was not made again. “At the same time, the public must not go to the other extreme to call for boycotts and the like. That is the wrong approach,” Mufti stated.

“The MJC made a mistake and they must apologise for it. Allah alone knows everyone’s intention, therefore we cannot set ourselves the task to get even with the MJC. Islam teaches us to forgive people when they make mistakes. More than that, let us not just look at people’s shortcomings. We don’t have the time to look at another person’s shortcomings when we have so many faults of our own. So let us hope that sanity prevails,” Mufti said.


With reference to the ulema bashing that had been part of the public criticism on the Orion issue, the alim pointed out that there was a fine line between legitimate criticism and ulema bashing. He said many members of the ulema do not appreciate being criticised, including by their peers. “As alims we must admit that the public has the right to criticise us. Sometimes alims act as if they are above reproach and this is incorrect,” he said.

“At the same time, people must remember that our ulema are the heirs of the prophets and they have to be respected as such. However, this does not mean they cannot be criticised. In criticising the ulema there are three things to remembers. Firstly, the intention must be to offer sincere naseega, rather than simply focussing on looking at their faults,” Mufti explained.

“People often become obsessed with the latter and then run the ulema down just for the sake of doing so. We are taught that once you start looking for the faults of others, then Allah will disgrace you, even if you are right. Therefore when we criticise, we must also be magnanimous in our approach. Our deen is a deen of the heart and therefore if advice needs to be given, let it be sincere,” the alim advised. VOC

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